Spatial Relations among Bodies in Movies: The Duchess

In Saul Dibb’s The Duchess (2008) Georgiana (Keira Knightley) is married to the duke (Ralf Fiennes). Georgiana is at an advanced stage of pregnancy and they are having dinner in Still 1. From what is seen in this still, a close approximation of this dinner scene, what do you think about the relationship of this couple?  Are they happy? Are they intimate? How is the emotional gap between them?

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Still 1. Space between the couple

The dinner table in the huge but mostly vacant is at the center and it occupies most of the frame. It represents the gap between the husband and the wife, who have been pushed to the either end of the table on the left and right margins of the frame. The gap is further filled by ornate candle stands, fruit baskets wine bottles and other food items, which can be afforded only by the affluent.

In fact, the duke is sexually promiscuous and in desperation to have a male heir he marries women in series. In this very dinner scene, a girl child whom the duke fathered and whose mother has died will be brought in to be introduced to Georgiana and she will live with them in the house with several vacant rooms.

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2.1. The duke with his wife and her friend on his either side

Thirty minutes into the film, in a party scene, Georgiana wittingly befriends Bess Foster (wife of another promiscuous and wife-beating husband), a woman who denied the duke when he accosted her a while ago. Thirty-five minutes into the film, on another day Georgiana takes Bess home and they have dinner with the duke (Still 2.1). This scene opens on the duke eating at the dinner table. The shot cuts to a close one of the three (unlike the earlier dinner scene described above) on a different table (a round one this time) in another, cozier room with candle lights, with the duke’s black back—the most dominant figure in the frame—imposingly turned toward us and the two women occupying the spaces on his sides on the left and right of the frame. The effect is that it looks like the duke presides over the dinner, and he has the two women on his sides. The scene would have had an altogether different effect if it had Georgiana in the middle, visually separating her husband and Bess.

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Still 2.2: Bess thanks the duke, her friend’s husband.

Over dinner Georgiana tells her husband that her friend does not have anywhere to stay before she goes to London. The duke self-consciously says why she does not stay with them at least for a while. Bess happily thanks him, and you will see the less than innocent expression on her face (Still 2.2).

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Still 3.1: The trio at the theater. Bess between the couple.

Bess stays at the couple’s house. Thirty-seven minutes into the film, later that night, the trio watch a play from the theater balcony (Still 3.1). Now in this scene, Bess sits between the couple, separating them like a wedge. (Notice also that Georgiana’s expression is light—she is smiling, but the faces of the duke and Bess are tensed.)

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Still 3.2: Bess shoots a quick glance at the duke

This change is more than significant. In more than a couple of shots, we she Bess shooting a quick sideways glance at the duke every now and then (Still 3.2). This glance is furtive and she does it without Georgiana knowing it as is seen in Still 3.3. Still 3.3 is interesting, because while it is Georgiana who occupies almost the entire of the frame it is contextually Bess only the half of whose face is visible on the left extreme of the frame that does the action crucial in this shot—her one eye in the frame is turned toward the duke. She does that from the dark, furtive corner, and she does it perfectly.

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Still 3.3: Bess’s space little, but she does excellently from that almost invisible corner.

Fifty-nine minutes into the film, we come back to the same huge dining room mentioned above. Almost everything remains the same—the same room, the same table, nearly the same sets of foods, candle stands, and attendants. But unlike the earlier scene approximated by Still 1, this one (Still 4) has Bess occupying the middle position separating the duke and his wife sitting at the either end of the long rectangular table spanning from the left frame to the right frame. A lot has happened between Still 1 and Still 4. As the events develop, the duke and Bess have got into an affair, which is not that secret any more. In fact, forty-five minutes into the film, the duke had sex with Bess.

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Still 4: In time, Bess has occupied the space between the couple more steadily.

The positional arrangement of characters in the physical setting of a movie is not usually accidental—this is deliberate and part of the mise en scène. The physical relations of the characters in the spatial setting of The Duchess evolve in an interesting way, and such is attained only through meticulous planning.

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